Egalitarian Kotel Prayer Plan Just Start of Religious Pluralism Debate in Israel

Fights Loom Over Marriage, Conversion and Shabbat Transit

getty images

By JTA

Published April 17, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Natan Sharansky’s proposal last week to expand the space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall could be historic.

But for most Israelis, changes at the Western Wall are of only trivial interest. Far more pressing are state restrictions on marriage and conversion, Sabbath bans on public transit, and haredi Orthodox exemptions from Israel’s mandatory draft.

The haredi draft exemption was a central issue in January’s elections for the Knesset, and it has been a hot topic of debate for the last year or so. A comprehensive bill is now in the works to draft haredi men, providing financial incentives to those who enlist and penalizing those who don’t.

A few political parties – notably the large, centrist Yesh Atid – have promised reforms on marriage, conversion and public transportation, too. But with the government’s coalition agreement giving each party veto power over any change in the state’s religious policy, sweeping changes on marriage and conversion are unlikely because the nationalist Jewish Home party is unlikely to approve such reforms.

The Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate nearly has a monopoly over marriage and conversion in Israel. Non-Orthodox wedding ceremonies, interfaith marriages and same-sex marriages are not recognized in Israel unless such couples wed and obtain a valid marriage certificate overseas.

When it comes to conversion in Israel, there is only one kind: Orthodox. Non-Orthodox converts to Judaism from overseas may be granted citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, but the Rabbinate can prevent them from marrying, divorcing or being buried as Jews once they are in Israel.

Perhaps a milder issue by comparison, many secular Israelis chafe against Sabbath-day limitations on public transit and commerce. While not entirely banned on Saturdays, they are subject to severely restrictive laws.

There have been some reforms in all three areas in recent years.

In 2010, the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which draws from a secular Russian immigrant support base, led a push for civil marriage. In a compromise, the watered-down bill passed by the Knesset legalized civil unions only for couples with no religious faith, not for Jews or interfaith couples.

Yesh Atid hopes to use that law as a template for allowing civil unions for any Israeli.

“We plan to work together on these issues,” Yesh Atid Knesset member Dov Lipman, an American-born rabbi, told JTA. “There’s already been significant discussion with all of the religious bodies on compromising on these issues. I do believe we can make significant changes.”

But Yesh Atid’s coalition partner, Jewish Home, reportedly opposes expanding civil unions. Instead, Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan is proposing measures to streamline the Orthodox marriage process – for example, allowing couples to marry with the Orthodox rabbi of their choosing.

By some measures, the conversion issue has been thornier.

In 2010, a Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member, David Rotem, proposed a bill meant to give would-be converts more leeway in choosing where and how to convert in Israel. But the bill also would have consolidated control over conversions under the office of the Rabbinate, further weakening Reform and Conservative conversions.

Following an outcry from Jewish leaders in the United States, the bill was shelved. Sharansky was tasked with finding a solution to the dispute, but nothing has materialized. In the meantime, Israel’s Supreme Court was subject to a freeze on hearing any cases relating to conversion.

The high court freeze expires at the end of April.

“Who is a Jew is an issue that will come back,” predicted Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and chairman of Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit that advocates for religious pluralism. “The courts making it a headline issue will happen within a few months.”

Public transit may be the issue most conducive to compromise because it does not involve questions of Jewish identity or continuity.

Public buses long have run on Shabbat in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, and private shared taxis run in Tel Aviv on the Sabbath. Lipman said Yesh Atid backs running buses on Shabbat in non-Orthodox neighborhoods on a limited schedule.

The one wild card in Israel’s religion and state debate is David Stav, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who will run for the position of chief rabbi in June. If he wins, supporters of the reform-minded rabbi say he will put a friendlier face on the Rabbinate and help unite a divided society.

But in an interview last year with JTA, the reforms outlined by Stav were mostly procedural. For example, he supports the drive to allow couples to marry under a rabbi of their choice.

Regev says the best chance for bringing about far-reaching reforms lies outside the country – in the form of the American Jewish community.

“At this point it’s all a question of applying sufficient pressure,” Regev said. “This subject can’t be pushed under the rug.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.